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Tedious annual poppy circus reminds us that, for some, remembrance isn't about remembering, it's being seen to remember

Rather than forcing poppies upon sportsmen and women of varying beliefs, remembrance should be about the most obvious thing... remembering

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Monday 30 October 2017 19:16 GMT
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At their best, public remembrance displays remind us of the power we all have when we come together in an act of common solidarity
At their best, public remembrance displays remind us of the power we all have when we come together in an act of common solidarity (Getty)

The whistle blows. The minute starts. And for the first few seconds, you’re simply struck by the abruptness of it: all these thousands of people, in this enormous place, standing completely silent.

Then - as your ears become accustomed to the stillness - tiny, insignificant sounds suddenly get amplified. A throaty cough in Row BB. A little rustle of coat a few seats away. Is that someone shouting in the away stand? There’s always one idiot, you tell yourself. Then a few dozen other people start shushing him, which invariably makes things worse. Finally, mercifully, silence breaks out once more: a calmness, a tranquility, a gentle wave. Your mind begins to drift: to the game, to the unpaid gas bill on the kitchen table, to the half-finished WhatsApp message you were in the middle of composing.

The whistle blows again. A deafening roar. An impeccably observed silence, people around you mutter approvingly. And yet one thing is for certain: whatever it was we were all contemplating during the previous sixty seconds, it wasn’t our honourable war dead.

Still, everybody looked very solemn, which was of course the point of the whole exercise. No lives were saved. No money was raised. But everybody was at least seen to be doing the right thing, and in an age when the only part of you that counts is the part that others see, this had to count as a win all round.

This notion of public expression always seems to pop up again at this time of year. You may have read that Moeen Ali, the England cricketer, was upbraided for not wearing a poppy in an official team photograph. As it turned out, the poppy had simply fallen off, although not before the usual sluice of social media abuse had lapped his way. “C---,” one Instagram comment read. “Wear a f---ing poppy or don’t play for England you disrespectful p----.” These are the sorts of glowing tribute with which James McClean, the West Brom winger who refuses to wear a poppy on political grounds, will be bleakly familiar.

Also this week, it emerged that the football associations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had all sought permission for their players to wear poppy-emblazoned armbands during the forthcoming round of international fixtures, thus reigniting what may be the most tedious debate in the entirety of football, with the possible exception of whether the League Cup counts as a “proper trophy”.

It is a debate that has become tedious not simply because of its frivolity or tiredness - although it is both tired and frivolous - but because of the way a potentially productive discussion of personal choice and freedom of expression has reverted depressingly into the entrenched, scowling tropes of the political bun-fight.

James McClean received death threats for not embroidering a poppy into his shirt (Getty)

So let’s try and weave a middle course. Just as there are those on the Right who are all too keen to wield the poppy as a weapon of their nativist fantasies, there are times when the Left is just as delusionally guilty. I have a lot of time for Channel Four’s Jon Snow, but his reference to “poppy fascism” a few years ago was crass, self-defeating and basically a bit thick. It was wilfully disdainful of the millions who wear their poppy to remember those who united to defeat fascism. It advanced his own argument zero, and those of his detractors plenty.

There really is no reason why the act of remembrance should be intrinsically political in the slightest. There is no correlation, for example, between the minute’s silence or the wearing of poppies and, say, the extensive protests by black athletes in the United States and elsewhere. There is no broader social movement at work here, no seismic change being wrought. Remembrance - unlike taking a knee - is its own end. In theory, at least.

In practice, of course, something far subtler is going on. I travelled to Manchester last weekend and noticed that the train carrying me had been decorated with an enormous poppy on the front. And so it was tempting to wonder who, exactly, was doing the remembering here. Not the train, clearly, which for all its impressive technical specifications regrettably lacks the capacity for empathy.

Minutes of silence will be observed across the country in this weekend's fixtures (Getty 2017)

Not the train company, surely: a vast, amorphous blob of an organisation owned by a venture capital conglomerate with interests in virtually every country in the world and no innate impulse beyond the accumulation of further capital. So who? It’s like those people who put poppies on their pets: you suspect, on some level, that the real message is not that little Mittens is still grieving for the lost souls of Passchendaele, but that its owner just really wants people to know how great he is.

Of course public displays of remembrance can be useful, even cathartic. At its best, they remind us of the power we all have when we come together in an act of common solidarity. But it is only a short leap from that to the idea that the public act of commemoration is the only sort that counts. And only a short leap from that to the idea that the more grandiose the gesture, the more sincere the sentiment.

I’ve got some advice for Moeen, not that he needs it. But it’s this: if one day you suddenly start wearing the poppy, if you start festooning yourself in them as if there’s a global abundance, if you bedeck the front of your house, all your possessions and your wife and children in poppies, it isn’t magically going to make these people like you. They didn’t care when you walked out to play for England with the Help For Heroes logo stitched discreetly into your collar. They don’t even care about our war dead or our veterans. They just don’t like you: not because of anything you do, but because of who you are, and who they are. This is the trouble with a culture that instinctively wants to believe the worst in people. That actively aches to admonish. When you’re that determined, really any excuse will do.

A spokesperson for the Royal British Legion had this to say: “The poppy honours all those who have sacrificed their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy today, and so the decision to wear it must be a matter of personal choice. If the poppy became compulsory, it would lose its meaning and significance. We are thankful for every poppy worn, but we never insist upon it. To do so would be contrary to the spirit of remembrance and all that the poppy stands for.”

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